Napoleon Dynamite
directed by Jared Hess
(Paramount, 2004)

The greatest cinematic disappointment of 2004 had to be the failure to materialize of the purported sequel to Dude, Where's My Car? -- Seriously, Dude, Where's My Car? -- which simply vanished one day from the Internet Movie Database, where it had been listed as "in production."

Seriously, dude, where's my sequel?

Fortunately, the untimely demise of Dude was more than compensated for by the unexpected arrival of Napoleon Dynamite, the latest "local geek makes good" opus, which turned up unexpectedly one day last summer at cineplexes across the country and simply wouldn't go away.

As a result, the film -- made for $400,000 in Preston, Idaho, by Preston native Jared Hess -- had taken in more than $44 million by mid-December and spawned an entire cottage industry of T-shirt shops.

The plot, for those of you who have yet to see it (which means you're probably over 18 or under 9) is simple: There is none.

Rather, Napoleon Dynamite is a series of somewhat-connected events in the life of a Preston High School student (Jon Heder) who spends most of his waking hours staring off into space or trying to survive life at his grandmother's home in the Idaho outback.

What Napoleon lacks in plot it makes up for with conflict: Napoleon's conflict with his brother, Kip (Aaron Ruell), a chat-room-addicted thirtysomething with dreams of becoming a cage fighter; with his classmates, who think he's even geekier than he is; with his grandmother's llama, Tina, who refuses to eat the food he's been ordered to give her; and with his Uncle Rico (Jon Ries), a former high school football star (in his own mind, at least) who's stuck in 1982 and who comes to live with Kip and Napoleon after their grandmother (Sandy Martin) sustains a serious injury in a dune-buggy crash. (What happened to Napoleon's parents is unclear, though a logical explanation might be that they ran away from home.)

The most consistent story line involves Napoleon's attempts to find a date to the Preston High School dance. The most likely candidate is Deb (Tina Majorino), a somewhat dorky classmate who peddles truly dorky handicrafts door-to-door and runs a portrait photography studio on the side. (Don't ask why. Remember, we're in Idaho now.)

But Deb already has agreed to go to the dance with Pedro (Efren Ramirez), Napoleon's best -- and, apparently, only -- friend at PHS. So, with Pedro's help, Napoleon manages to land a date with one of the most popular girls at school -- the best friend of the most popular girl at school, Summer Wheatly (Haylie Duff), who's running against Pedro for class president.

Amazing how complicated a film without a plot can get.

But Napoleon isn't about conflict and resolution. It's about conflict and set pieces, and the set pieces are often hysterical.

Take Napoleon and Kip's brief venture to the Rex Kwondo studio, where Kip's very short career as a cage fighter comes to an abrupt end when he volunteers to help with a classroom demonstration. Or see what happens when Rex (Diedrich Bader) comes home to find Uncle Rico, a door-to-door salesman, trying to convince Rex's significant other (Carmen Brady) to invest in some body appliances.

Then there's the arrival in Preston of Kip's chat-room sweetheart from Detroit, LaFawnduh (Shondrella Avery), and her attempts to turn techno-geek Kip into a homeboy.

But all the action eventually comes back to Napoleon. Whether he's protecting his tater tots from the school's top jock or challenging Summer to a game of tether ball, Napoleon is simply a sight to see, his stiff and awkward body language saying much more than his dialogue -- laced with such racy terms as "flippin'" and "freakin'" -- could ever express.

And then, there's Napoleon's contribution to the art world: the liger, a cross between a lion and a tiger (not to be confused with a tigon, a difference that becomes apparent only if you watch the deleted scenes on the DVD).

But most importantly, perhaps, there's the simple lack of perspective, with scene after scene being photographed absolutely flat. That effect, combined with the lack of plot, is unnerving at first, but it soon becomes a modus operandi: Napoleon Dynamite is anti-expressionism taken to its illogical extreme, drama for the reality-TV-impaired. And in part because it tackles so much familiar ground in such an unfamiliar way, it works.

Two teens who regularly contribute to my reviews have declared it the best film ever made. I haven't signed off on that, yet. But I haven't ruled it out.

Seriously, dude.

- Rambles
written by Miles O'Dometer
published 12 February 2005

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